With preparations for the 2005 Belarussian season beginning to gather pace, one club has already been dismissed from the Premier League and another could follow.
Only 15 teams will constitute the top division when the campaign commences in April, following the Belarus Football Federation's (BFF) refusal to grant a playing licence to newly promoted side FC Vedrich-97 Rechitsa. The problem is that the infrastructure at Vedrich does not meet UEFA club licensing standards, and the BFF has therefore ruled that the financially struggling outfit must remain in the second division.
Another team facing the grim prospect of a similar sanction is last season's sixth-placed team FC Torpedo-SKA Minsk. They may be expelled from the top flight after experiencing financial difficulties, with a decision on their future expected at the start of spring.
For title-holders FC Dinamo Minsk, the new season got under way early with their participation in the Commonwealth Cup competition in Moscow for champion clubs from the former Soviet republics. However, Dinamo failed to progress beyond the first stage, finishing third in their group, and leaving coach Yury Shukanov unconvinced as to the value of the tournament. "Playing three games in four days, indoors in unventilated conditions on an undersized artificial pitch, is a nonsense," he said.
Dinamo will do all they can to retain their title although they will face stiff competition from the likes of FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk, FC BATE Borisov, FC Gomel, FC Torpedo Zhodino and FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk. Despite never having finished outside the top three, BATE's challenge could be compromised by the departures of coach Yuri Puntus and several key players - goalkeeper Yury Zhevnov, midfielders Alen Shkabara, Aleh Strakhanovich, Yauheni Lashankou and Mikhail Afanasiev, and forward Dzmitry Komarovski.
Puntus has joined MTZ-RIPO who may well be the season's surprise package. The club only retained top-flight status by virtue of a relegation play-off victory against FC Lokomotiv Vitebsk, but Puntus will attempt to improve their fortunes having appointed the experienced Eduard Malofeev to his coaching staff. The 62-year-old was Belarus's national team coach from 2000-03 and led Dinamo to the USSR championship in 1982.
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